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(New York) - The Chinese government should immediately grant medical parole to imprisoned human rights advocate Hu Jia, who suffers from serious and chronic illnesses, Human Rights Watch said today.

Hu Jia, a longtime human rights defender who originally focused on promoting the rights of people with HIV/AIDS, is reportedly suffering from complications of liver cirrhosis linked to chronic hepatitis B virus infection. Prison authorities have over the past two years repeatedly denied applications by Hu Jia's wife and fellow activist, Zeng Jinyan, for Hu Jia's medical parole. Explanations have ranged from unverified assessments by prison staff that he is not "critically ill" to allegations that Hu Jia is "disobedient" and refused to be "quiet."

"The Chinese government should never have sent Hu Jia to prison in the first place," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Now it is cruelly punishing him by denying medical parole."

Hu Jia is serving a three-and-a-half-year prison term for "inciting subversion against the state," an offense used to punish those who criticize the government or the Communist Party of China. The sentence, handed down on April 3, 2008, followed a trial that fell short of international fair trial standards. Hu Jia has been legally eligible to apply for medical parole since July 2009; Chinese regulations permit such applications from medically eligible prisoners who have served one-third of their sentence.

Hu Jia was formally arrested in Beijing on January 30, 2008. His arrest was part of a wider crackdown on Chinese citizens critical of human rights abuses linked to the preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Hu Jia's peaceful criticisms included a September 2007 letter written with Teng Biao, a human rights activist and leading civil rights lawyer, entitled "The Real China and the Olympics." The letter detailed specific and wide-ranging violations of human rights by the government, and called on the international community to hold Beijing to the promises it made when bidding to host the Olympic Games, including improving human rights.

On March 30, 2010, Beijing Prison Administration (BPA) medical personnel did a CT scan of Hu Jia's liver to determine whether there were indications of cancer. Despite assurances to release results to Hu Jia's family, the BPA has not released the results of those tests. Previous BPA denials of potentially crucial data on Hu Jia's medical condition were noted by Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights in December 2008. The government's unwillingness to provide the information prevents Hu Jia and his family from knowing Hu Jia's current health status and ensuring that he is receiving proper care.

Under international law, states have an obligation to ensure medical care for prisoners at least equivalent to that available to the general population. The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which China ratified in 1997, says, "States are under the obligation to respect the right to health by, inter alia, refraining from denying or limiting equal access for all persons, including prisoners or detainees, ... to preventive, curative and palliative health services." The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed but not ratified, has been found to require governments to provide "adequate medical care during detention." The monitoring body of the Convention Against Torture has found that failure to provide adequate medical care can violate the convention's prohibition of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

"The Chinese authorities are denying a very sick prisoner proper medical attention, and are cruelly denying his wife and family information about his health," said Richardson.

Hu Jia's case has been raised with Chinese authorities by many governments. He was included in a list of about a dozen individuals given by US officials to their Chinese counterparts in advance of President Barack Obama's visit to China in November 2009. In 2008, Hu Jia was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and his case has been raised by numerous senior European officials.

"It's a powerful statement about the lack of progress on human rights in China that foreign leaders must inquire about the welfare of political prisoners in China," said Richardson. "The Chinese government should abide by international conventions and its own laws, and release Hu Jia on medical parole immediately."

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